Teaching Creative Writing in Unexpected Places

When I was in San Diego I had the opportunity to join my friend (novelist, founder of DimeStories, and literary hostess and pie maker extraordinnaire) Amy Wallen for her PEN In the Classroom gig at the City Heights Community Center.  She teaches two groups of high school students who are participating in a marine biology discovery (after school) program that will land them in Bahia de los Angeles, Baja Mexico** over the summer.  There they will participate in research projects and experience marine life and science in a way that no text book can offer.  Then, they write about their experiences– hence the creative writing component.  At the end of the program, they publish an anthology through the PEN program.

Amy said I could write with the class but I had packed 12 shirts (only 6 of which I wore) and had a collection of 27 pens and pencils…but did not have a notebook with me.  Embarrassing for a writer to wander around the world with nothing to write in!

Amy also asked me to tell the kids about my MFA program and read an excerpt from my dissertation.  I chose a short piece about my time working at Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater–a cautionary tale about a why you should go to college and not get a job dressed as a giant rat.  I left out the part about smoking pot in a Chevy van in the parking lot after work, but I think my description of the stench inside the Chuck E. costume may have scared them away from working as any kind of character. Even Disney.

What I love about this program is that the goal is not to make novelists out of these kids (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but rather the goal is to give the students tools they can use in other areas of their academic, and later their professional careers.  Writing is important no matter what field you go into.  And why not learn to write creatively?  As Amy Wallen wrote in the Spring 2011 anthology’s forward, “Creative writing and science may not seem like suitable partners, but on the contrary, it is the imagination that allows the scientist to believe in the unknown, in exploration, and in discovery. Each week the students learned how to describe the world around them, how to express what they saw, touched, heard, and felt. As they shared in ink what they learned and experienced, they also gained the skills to make science accessible to not just their peers, but to all their fellow human beings.”

** When I was an undergrad way back when, I had the opportunity to take a summer session marine biology class in Bahia.  We snorkled, dove for sand dollars, and explored the waters in the Sea of Cortez encountering manta rays, turtles, and squid.  We slept under the most star-filled sky I’ve ever seen in my life.  And, we managed to find the only store open (and selling beer) during siesta.




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